Create a free profile to get unlimited access to exclusive videos, sweepstakes, and more!
James Tynion IV breaks down Punchline, the Designer's video game origins, and 'Joker War'
After years of playing on the edges of the Batman universe, writing titles like Detective Comics, Justice League, and Batman Eternal, James Tynion IV has been given the keys to the kingdom as he continues his exciting run on Batman. But it’s been Tynion’s new villains who are stealing the spotlight this time; anticipation has built in the past few weeks as comics fans wait to snap up the debut of two new baddies, Punchline and The Designer. Even before copies of Batman #89 and Hell Arisen #3 (Punchline’s first appearance) were available to the public, they were going at an average of 10 times the cover price online.
For Tynion and DC Comics, it’s a huge win in the ultra-competitive comic book market and speaks to fans’ hunger for new characters. In a chat with SYFY WIRE, Tynion says seeing the reaction to his new characters has been humbling and justifying. He also shared his future plans for Batman, gave SYFY WIRE an inside look at creating new villains, and spoke about the next story he’s been dying to tell, "Joker War."
“I'd co-written stories in the main Batman title before but I'd never been in the driver's seat of the Batmobile. That is a total game-changer. Honestly, it continues to be an incredibly intimidating and humbling place to be,” Tynion says. “ Not only is this book important for DC Comics, but it's also the book that the entire Batman universe sort of hinges on. All of the supporting cast, all the Batfamily books all radiate out of that center. And you need that strong center to lift all of the books.”
DC Comics announced Tynion would be taking over for former Batman writer Tom King on Batman Day (July 23, the anniversary of his first appearance) last September. Since then, Tynion says, he’s been gearing up and planting seeds for his run, which started with Batman #86. Initially, the book was going to move to a monthly release, but as the decision came down to remain a double-shipped book, Tynion says it actually created a lot more opportunity for him.
“Because when you're operating at double ship schedule, you can kind of take some side paths on your way to telling a bigger story. So that helps support a cast of characters, which easily I love doing,” he explains. “In the sense that I used the Batfamily in my run on Detective, I wanted to use the villains of Gotham as sort of the supporting cast for this one.”
As expected with a flagship book like Batman, DC Comics has put some of its best artists forward. While Tony Daniel (Batman #86), Guillem March (Batman #87-89), and current artist Jorge Jimenez (Batman #90-91) have been helping Tynion flesh out his ideas, it’s been Jimenez (Justice League, Super Sons) who has had the biggest hand in creating the newest iteration of Gotham City, through its new villains. Tynion describes their creative relationship as comfortable, exciting, and energetic.
“I think Jorge is one of the preeminent artists of this moment in comics," Tynion says. "He taps into this energy that I really appreciate. I broke into this industry very young and started writing comics in my early 20s and now I'm in my early 30s and Jorge is roughly the same age as me."
He continues: "So, it's really, really nice to bring in the same frames of reference. We were around the same age when the manga boom happened and that changed how comic readers interact with the world. We grew up with the same video games, we grew up with the same cartoons. Just having that similar frame of reference gives us a shorthand that we can work with and develop stuff that feels of this moment.”
Tynion and Jimenez took different paths in creating the Designer and Punchline, who debuted in the opening Batman arc “Their Dark Designs.” According to the author, elements of the Designer had been stewing for a long time, back to his Batman Eternal days, while Punchline was created out of necessity.
“Going back to working on Batman Eternal, there were a lot of little side ideas that I would have about a Batman character or villain that didn't fit in the narrative I was doing and it would just be like 'OK, this isn't a full idea yet, but it could be a seed for an idea,'" Tynion says. “The Designer was one of those things. Just the idea of a character who was conscious of the way that villains evolve over time.
"As readers, we're very conscious of the fact that the first time Joker or a number of other characters show up, they're kind of gimmick villains," he explains. "They’re either trying to rob something or accomplish a very singular goal. But, over time, they become more reflections of the hero and their crimes escalate, one after the other, to the point where they're these larger-than-life villains.”
The Designer, Tynion says, is essentially the idea of making an exponential leap, becoming the villain you're going to be 10 years from now, today, as a way to overcome your hero in the moment. As for the design of The Designer, Tynion suggested the character be a blend of video game villains.
“I wanted him to look like he's a character from another story, another type of genre of comics melting into this one," he explains. "I think I described him as a 'Imagine if there was a Final Fantasy, Silent Hill, Metal Gear Solid crossover and the villain of that story was the literal devil. I think Jorge delivered.”
Punchline was a different story. According to Tynion, the idea sprouted from the back-up stories starting in Batman #85. More recently in DC Comics, the Joker has been a creeping figure in the shadows, but Tynion says he wanted to bring back the Joker’s gang. Since Harley Quinn and the Joker are currently “estranged,” that left an opportunity for Tynion.
“As I was building this story I realized that I need Joker to have a number two. I need to have him have a henchman that can tell all of the others what to do," he says. "As I was thinking of who that character could be, I had a few ideas. There were a couple of pitches I had a year or so back about a character inspired by the Joker and I sort of molded all those things together into a description that we then sent to Jorge."
With Punchline, Tynion says, he wanted her to be the opposite of Harley Quinn in every way. While Harley is “brash, loud, and a little old school vaudeville, a bit more roller derby," he wanted Punchline to be a “slinking, quiet, deadly character."
“If Harley is a guffaw, Punchline is a quiet, creepy grin," he explains. "If you imagine the angel and the devil on the Joker's shoulders, Harley is the angel that saw the best in the Joker and saw something human there and Punchline sees all the dark potential for the Joker and she is in love with that aspect of him."
And then Jimenez stepped in.
“Once we saw her, my editor and I, Ben Abernathy, were just like 'I think we have fire in our hands.' We've got something really, really cool that people are going to enjoy,” he adds. “That's when we started to make the decision about how we feed her into the book. We knew that she was going to play into the first storyline, 'Their Dark Designs,' but we knew that would pay off in 'Joker War,' where she would be one of the primary antagonists of that story.”
With the fanatical response to Punchline, Tynion says he’s happy to receive support but points out he never likes hearing that “someone who wants to read a comic, and actually sit down and read a comic, can't get that comic.” That said, he thinks many fans may have taken the change after Tom King’s run as a place to take a break.
“I don’t want to say that they weren’t expecting much, but I think people saw it as a moment to step back and reassess what's happening in the line and I think it caught people off guard a bit,” he admits. "I am happy that we had this idea that has seemed to connect and that people have got excited about it. The support that the readers are showing the series is giving me more room to play. It helps show the company 'Hey, the things I was pitching on paper are exciting to the people around.'"
That excitement seems to be building, which is perfect, Tynion says, because it leads into the big story he’s been dying to tell: "Joker War." So, why another Joker story?
“What's new is new characters, like Punchline and someone I've hinted at, but can't talk too much about, is Clownhunter. These characters are new characters I wanted to inject into the Batman/Joker dynamic to shake it up and allow me to explore it from a few different angles,” he says. “With both Punchline and Clownhunter, they're both kinds of sections of how Gotham itself reacts to the idea of the Joker existing. This is someone who has almost killed the city multiple times; he's larger than life in terms [of] Gotham in the same way Batman is. Everyone in Gotham City has an opinion on who and what the Joker is and who and what Batman is.”
On the heels of King’s Batman run, Tynion has had to also adapt to a new world for the Caped Crusader. Not only are Batman and Catwoman a couple now, but Alfred is dead and the Batcave is no more. Now operating out of the bunker underneath Wayne Manor, Bruce Wayne has turned to Lucius Fox to pick up the slack. That’s led to a whole new batch of angles, Tynion says.
“Being able to bring in Lucius was great. Most of Lucius' solutions to problems are tech-based because that's how Lucius works. I'm literally on my computer putting some final touches on a scene where Lucius has to deal with the fallout,” he says. “Lucius isn't a trained field surgeon like Alfred was, that's not part of his skill set. So, all of a sudden, we're going to have to see where he doesn't live up to the pure ideal that was Alfred. On top of that, he's been neglecting his role as Wayne Enterprises CEO, which is another very important job that needs doing.”
Tynion says everything he’s put into the story is an element that will pay off down the road. The idea of the machinery beneath Wayne Enterprises? Tynion says he had that idea because he knew how it would be twisted and used against Batman.
“That's the thing. I want people to feel the propulsive quality of the title. We are planting seeds and the things you're reading right now will pay off in summer then set up things that will pay off later in the year. I want to keep readers engaged in reading,” he explains. “Comics are expensive, especially when they're coming out twice a month and if you're going to give me effectively $10 a month, I'm going to give you enough story and cool ideas to make it worth it. That was a guiding concept when I was back on Detective. That's still the guiding principle.”